With this production, Michael Boyd completes his eight-play cycle of the Histories, and a wheel it is indeed. Boyd shows clearly how actions have consequences, for characters great and small – the scallywags Bardolph and Nym are hanged offstage, but we glimpse them, curled and quiet, very dead. Yet who here is the great man and who the small? The strongest impressions in this pageant of battle and slaughter are made by the funny and fiery soldiers, not the grandmasters of conquest.
Geoffrey Streatfield this summer was a pinched and chill Prince Hal, making the least surprising rejection of Falstaff in memory. Here he is still a cold drink of water, but the emptiness and sense of inadequacy are more apparent – this is a smug public-school boy, a clever little wisp too frail for the mantle of greatness, a leader of men who feels the strain of counterfeiting the love he lacks.
The stage is bare, the costumes (Tom Piper and Emma Williams) budget-trad. The English are in dusty black, except for Julius d'Silva's Bardolph, whose face and clothing both seem to be covered in syphilitic sores, and Keith Dunphy's terribly endearing Nym, a dreamer of halting speech whose coat may have had better days, but never good ones.
The fighting is more symbolic than actual, conveyed in white (why not red?) paper streamers that spurt across the stage with an unwelcome suggestion of a New Year's party, and the "Once more unto the breach" scene is misjudged, beginning with men who exploding from beneath the floorboards, only to collapse at once – a too-quick change from fury to exhaustion that drew laughs from the opening-night audience
If the English are earthbound, even grubby, the members of the French court are ineffectual angels, not so much celestial beings as Christmas-tree ornaments. In peacock-blue satin and golden armour, they dangle from ropes or perch on tiny trapezes, accompanied (a bit Monty Python, this) by a dangling musician and his virginal. John Mackay's mega-blond Dauphin tilts his chin in emphatic nonchalance like the young Quentin Crisp and giggles through the Duke of Exeter's warning of the blood that, should they not surrender, will soak the fields of France.
The contrast between Miles Richardson's doleful, proleptically compassionate bearer of these harsh tidings and Streatfield's ultimatum to the governor of Harfleur points up the character of this immature and disaffected king. While making the same prophecies of murder and rape, Streatfield turns his back. He is not fierce or eloquent. Standing motionless but for one hand's skittering fingers, he simply, flatly recites a catalogue of promised atrocities, sounding as if he is trying to convince not only his adversary but himself of his might and right. In a later scene, reflecting that the king must have no friends, one does not hear rue but self-justification.
In the courtship scene, however, Streatfield allows the boyishness of this would-be man to come to the surface, and the result is surprisingly charming. In the romantic joust with the French princess (amusingly self-possessed Alexia Healy) and her lady-in-waiting (gently droll Hannah Barrie), one senses his relief at being allowed a moment's spontaneity and to play for lower stakes than lives.
The play, however, belongs to its common man – to Lex Shrapnel's graceful Williams, who, made the butt of a practical joke, shows himself to be more of a gentleman than the king, and to Jonathan Slinger's magnificent Fluellen. The most shocking scene in the play is the one in which this loyal, hearty, funny fellow makes Pistol eat the leek. We expect a bit of comic biffing; we get a burst of sickening violence. This is what war does – and not only to those who fight.
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